August 2013

Rap Genius: science between the lines

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Now here we go dropping science, dropping it all over
Like bumping around the town like when you’re driving a Range Rover
Expanding the horizon and expanding the parameters
Expanding the rhymes of sucka MC amateurs.

—Beastie Boys, “The Sounds of Science”
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I grew up a literary child in a scientific household. Both my parents, Ann and Jurrien Dean, worked at the National Institutes of Health. Dinner-table conversations consisted of foreign-sounding words and phrases like “chromatin,” “hematopoiesis,” “globin gene switching,” and something that seemed more like it came from the realm of science fiction than actual science: the zona pellucida! (It’s basically a force field, right?) As the after-dinner discussion turned to the lab, I turned from the table to the laboratory of great literature and most often to works of magical realism created by Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez.
My intellectual isolation as a humanist has not gotten easier with age, especially after earning a doctorate in English — now I, too, am incomprehensible to most. All my younger siblings have entered the sciences for their professional careers: I have a brother in an M.D./Ph.D. program in neuroscience at Vanderbilt Univesity, a sister attending Brown University’s medical school this fall and a brother majoring in chemistry at Harvard University. And I have married a behavioral biologist, Karin Akre, now a postdoc at Duke University.
Recently, though, my career has allowed me to collaborate with my growing family in interesting and unexpected ways. Since receiving my degree last fall, I have been exploring an alternate academic path working for a startup called Rap Genius as its “education czar.” Rap Genius lets users read and write line-by-line annotations not only for their favorite rap songs but also for great works of literature and historical documents. Lately, we have been making forays into the sciences. Classic scientific works like Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” have been added to the site’s interactive archive, as have more recent NIH reports, but we also are working with less accessible texts in an effort to use the Genius platform to engage students and the broader public with scientific research.
When I started working for Rap Genius this spring, my wife suggested that she use the platform in her Principles of Animal Behavior course at the University of Texas at Austin. The idea was that the difficulty of reading a complex academic article for the first time in an upper-division college course could be eased by having students read that article together as a class, share the responsibility of research and discuss the text as they read. We purposefully chose an article from the journal PLOS ONE for this proof of concept because we knew the content to be in the public domain. Not only did more than 80 students in Karin’s course collaboratively annotate Varenka Lorenzi, Ryan L. Earley and Matthew S. Grober’s “Differential responses of brain, gonad and muscle steroid levels to changes in social status and sex in a sequential and bidirectional hermaphroditic fish” on Rap Genius, bringing the text to life with their own research, but without any promotion or prompting, random visitors to the site clearly read through the article as well. One commented, “I legit spent 2 hours reading this. Rap genius. what are you doing to me?”
But the ultimate Science Genius crossover occurred a few weeks ago when my father forwarded me the e-newsletter for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology that mentioned the society’s submission to a PBS science-rap contest. (Congratulations on an honorable mention, by the way.) The contest was prompted by a program that Rap Genius co-organized with Christopher Emdin of Columbia Teachers College in the New York City Public Schools in which students write raps based on their science curricula. The ASBMB’s rap was about the knockout mouse and is now fully annotated by the society on Rap Genius, as are the songs of other finalists in the competition.

Geoff Hunt with fellow judges GZA and CJ Fly
ASBMB Public Outreach Coordinator (and occasional science rapper) Geoff Hunt joined with fellow MC’s GZA and CJ Fly to help judge the 2013 Science Genius finals at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

We invited the producer of the ASBMB’s video, outreach coordinator Geoff Hunt, up to New York recently to be a judge in the Science Genius program’s Final B.A.T.T.L.E.S. alongside Wu-Tang’s GZA and Jennifer Bogo, senior science editor at Popular Science, among other dignitaries from the fields of hip-hop and science. The winner of that contest was Jalib, also known as Jabari Johnson, of Urban Assembly School, who rapped about scientific and life lessons learned from physics class. The whole evening, though, was a testament to how popular culture and scientific knowledge can come together in powerful ways, engaging young people with academic content and engaging the scientific community with a broader public.
Our plan at Rap Genius is to launch a variety of annotation channels for different intellectual communities so that one day there will be a separate site called Science Genius, which will be an interactive archive for everything from raps about science to laboratory journal club articles. I especially believe that social reading platforms like Genius will offer scholars the opportunity to expand their audiences beyond their immediate colleagues.

Geoff Hunt with judges and participants in the Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S.
Judges Geoff Hunt (ASBMB), Jeremy Dean (Rap Genius), Jennifer Bogo (Popular Science), CJ Fly (Pro Era rapper), Ta-Nehisi Coates (senior editor for The Atlantic) and GZA (Wu-Tang Clan) pose with Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S. champion Jabari Johnson.

Imagine scholarly articles with layers of annotation that guide the lay person through the research findings. Or abstracts that are broken down by a scholar to help explicate his or her work. One example of an annotated abstract (“Forecasting the impact of storm waves and sea level rise on Midway Atoll and Laysan Island within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument — a comparison of passive versus dynamic inundation models”) is from the U.S. Geological Survey.
We no longer need to imagine rap songs about complicated scientific ideas; the ASBMB and the students in the Science Genius project have schooled us with the knowledge they dropped in rhyme.
Whether you are down with the mathematics of rhyming, the science of beats or the “k-nowledge” of rap music more broadly, we invite the scientific community to share and collaborate on knowledge making at Rap Genius.

Jeremy DeanJeremy Dean ( is chief of education at Rap Genius.

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